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Sunday, November 20, 2022

A Mass Transit First For Me

 Picture the scene:  Last Monday, I hurried into the Metro station to start my commute to work.  My rolling backpack somehow didn't make it through the gate with me, and in frustration, I picked it up to lift over the gate without putting my SmarTrip card away first.  And then I hear the loud crack of cheap chintzy plastic...

The whole thing didn't seem to bode well for the rest of the day, or even the rest of the week.  I was also bummed because I had had my previous SmarTrip card from 2007 until 2021 when they started replacing the fare gates and everyone had to get new cards.  At that point, I was already inside one station, so my best hope was to ride to my destination station and hope my broken card would let me out.  It wouldn't, but I guess the station manager decided that I didn't look like a fare evader because he let me just walk through the gate when I told him what happened.  I bought a new SmarTrip card for my trip home and stewed about the amount of money that was left on my broken card.

Then, it occurred to me.  I had registered my previous SmarTrip card in order to receive transit benefits.  I wasn't sure if I had registered this one, but since I had the pieces with the identification number still on it, I probably still could register it and then recover the funds.  This took some time since, of course, I didn't remember any of my log in information.  But I managed to register both the broken SmarTrip card and the card I bought to replace it.  (Public service message to anyone riding DC Metro or any other transit system requiring a fare card:  Make sure you register your card.  You never know when your card will be lost--or broken--at the critical time when you've just reloaded money onto it).

There didn't seem to be a way to transfer the funds from the broken card to the new card.  I ended up calling the SmarTrip card customer service line.  I'll admit that I wasn't very optimistic, but the person who helped had the funds transferred from my old card to my new card by the time I went home in the afternoon.  All's well that ends well for this mass transit first, but I'm being much more careful with my chintzy plastic SmarTrip card now...

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Summer 2022 Balcony Gardening Bust

 I wrote here last year about my balcony garden, which was relatively successful in spite of probably insufficient sunlight.  I got some cherry tomatoes (as did various critters who visited), and I got loads of basil.  This year was different.

I think part of the problem was that I decided to branch out and grow kale on the balcony.  I bought three starter plants from a nursery, and at first, they looked like a smashing success.  Then came the whiteflies.  For those who have never had the supreme pleasure of seeing them, they are tiny white flying insects that feed on the bottoms of plant leaves.  When you water the plant, they all fly up like a disgusting cloud, but never seem to be deterred for long.  Evidently, they enjoy kale as much as I do.

After it became apparent that they were destroying the kale plants, I pulled up the sad, skeletal remains of the kale and threw them out.  They then decided to settle for my mint (a new mint plant this year, since my old faithful plant finally died).  They haven't killed it yet, but it's not for lack of effort.

Tomatoes were another real disappointment; I didn't get a single one.  My mom suggested that I may have inadvertently bought a determinate variety of tomato and that a heat wave may have destroyed all of the tomatoes as they were developing.  It seems plausible, given the weather over the summer.  I kept hoping they would develop, but after listening to two podcast hosts based in Canada talking about their tomatoes, I realized the chances that my Virginia tomatoes were just delayed were slim.

My basil has fared better than my other plants this summer, but I didn't have the copious amounts I did last summer.  I've even had to buy bunches of basil from the farmers market to get all the pesto I want.  I'm not sure what went wrong, but it's a disappointment.

According to the interwebs, marigolds may help repel whiteflies, so I think I'll try planting some of those next year with the hope of protecting all of my plants.  Otherwise, I guess I'll have to be careful which tomatoes I get and hope for the best for a bumper crop of basil.

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

The Value Of The Second Opinion

 Scott and I have been homeowners for just about two years now.  One of the big differences between owning and renting is dealing with repairs.  In theory, as a renter, the landlord is supposed to fix things for free (in practice, this seems to vary considerably.  I never had a problem getting someone to come and take a look at whatever was broken, but getting them to actually fix it was something else!).  Now, we have to find repair technicians and pay.  The upside to paying is that they generally will actually fix problems because they want us to be happy.  But not always, as it turns out.

Shortly after we moved in to our condo, we signed up for a program with a local company that deals in both HVAC and plumbing.  With this program, we get two HVAC inspections and one plumbing inspection per year.  We also get a discount on parts and labor, as well as progressively larger discounts on new hot water heaters and HVAC units depending on the number of years we spend in the program.  Our thought in doing this was that neither of us know anything about either HVAC or plumbing, and we wanted a professional to look at both systems regularly to prevent major problems that could be brewing.

One relatively minor problem we've had since the beginning is that our hot water heater runs out of hot water pretty quickly.  This becomes more of an issue on mornings when we're both trying to get to work and take showers back-to-back.  Whoever takes the second shower definitely gets the short end of the stick.

Last year, when we had our plumbing inspection, I asked the plumber about this.  He drew up an estimate for a diagnostic that would cost several hundred dollars and a new hot water heater, which would cost even more.  He told me that I could have the diagnostic done, but that if the hot water heater couldn't be repaired, it would just be money down the drain (haha), and I'd end up buying a new hot water heater anyway.  His take was that I should just skip to the new hot water heater.  I told him I'd think about it.  We did discuss replacing the hot water heater over the past year, but due to my employment "disruptions" and the cost, we decided it was best to put it off.

Fast forward to this year's plumbing inspection, which we had today.  A different plumber came out this time, someone who had replaced parts in both toilets when they had crapped out (haha).  We asked him about the hot water heater, and he told us that that it was likely that either an element or a thermostat was out.  He said he could run a diagnostic, and that he recommended that we just replace all the elements and thermostats at once since they were all likely the same age and would likely all need to be replaced in short order.  And...the kicker is he did all of this for less money that last year's plumber estimated just for the diagnostic!

It's uncomfortable to have to conclude that last year's plumber was trying to fleece us, but it's hard to come up with an alternative explanation.  It probably didn't help that Scott wasn't home for this last year, and I'm a woman.  I also realize that last year's plumber asked me first thing whether I'd had a plumbing inspection before, which in retrospect makes me think he was trying to figure out what he could get away with.  In any case, the experience has reminded me of the value of getting multiple opinions before shelling out large sums of money.  After talking to today's plumber, I feel that I better understand the hot water heater, too.  I hope that knowledge will serve me well if anyone tries to pull a similar move in the future.

Friday, July 22, 2022

Large Produce Purchases Are What Happen When You're Busy Making Other Plans

 Hmm.  Well, I know I hadn't posted in a while, but I didn't remember how long it had been!  In a nutshell, life has kept me busy.  I did ultimately start working again, but, having anticipated that it might not be a good long-term fit, kept some other application processes going.  Between my current job, interviews for other jobs, and paperwork associated with other opportunities, I've had a pretty full schedule.

This isn't to say that things have been all bad!  For one thing, I finally have a job offer I feel optimistic about.  Also...a couple weeks ago, a 5-pound box of mushrooms came into my life.

There is a mushroom vendor at our farmers market.  They sell a lot of small containers of fresh, pristine looking mushrooms.  I buy them sometimes, but mushrooms are somewhat expensive compared to some other foods, so I've never really gone all out on my purchases.  But!  They sometimes sell a 5-pound box of mushroom "seconds".  The first time I saw one of these at their stand, I was intrigued, but told myself that I didn't have the time or the plan to deal with quite so many mushrooms at once.  After we left, of course, I immediate regretted not having gotten it.  Then, the next time I saw one of these boxes, I had arrived about a minute too late, and someone else was buying it.  So, when I saw it again a couple weeks ago, I jumped to buy it and declared the next week "mushroom week."  

Getting through all of the mushrooms was a fun challenge, but a challenge all the same.  I love mushrooms and will happily eat them for several meals a day, but I'm not sure Scott is quite as enthusiastic about them.  I finally got to try a recipe for dry rub mushrooms, which was interesting, but I might not try again.  I also got to make a tart absolutely laden with mushrooms, and more than one egg dish with mushrooms.

There will almost certainly be a next time for this mushroom venture, although I've promised Scott that I won't do it immediately.  Next time, I will make a mushroom stew recipe that my dad and I both found in the NY Times and marked for future reference.  Also, next time, I'll know that oyster mushrooms keep much better in the fridge than pioppino mushrooms and plan my order of consumption accordingly.

In the meantime, though, there is a large box of mangos I bought last week from an Indian grocery store to enjoy.

Monday, May 23, 2022

Thoughts On Power Outages

 During thunderstorms following unseasonably hot weather, we lost power last night.  This power outage lasted several hours.  I've experienced longer power outages before, but I realized while sitting in the dark last night that it had been a number of years since a power outage had caused inconvenience for me beyond having to reset the clocks.  With that, I bring you the various epiphanies I had last night, with the (possibly unrealistic) hope that I won't be repeating the experience anytime soon.

1. In spite of my hopes, I (and you) might experience more frequent power outages.  I'm no meteorologist and I know next to nothing about electricity.  However, I do know from life experience that power outages often happen during storms, which are increasing in both frequency and severity.  Having grown up in North Carolina, I'm no stranger to summer thunderstorms, but I'm often struck and how much more violent storms seem now than they did when I was a child.  So in my mind, it stands to reason that more frequent and severe storms may lead to more frequent power outages.  Yet one more reason--on top of so many already--to take meaningful action on the climate.

2. Hand-cranked devices rule, battery-operated devices drool (and leak battery acid).  I connected some dots last night.  We've had battery-operated flashlights we've had to throw away because they've gotten horribly sticky, apparently for no reason.  The same thing happened last night with a hand-cranked radio with battery back-up.  I hadn't used it since losing power during Hurricane Sandy.  Well, we tried to use it last night, but it was incredibly sticky (and also had stopped working) and I had a lightbulb moment that the stickiness was probably coming from batteries that had long ago corroded.  Fortunately, we had one hand-cranked flashlight and one hand-cranked lantern, which were delightfully un-sticky and worked quite well.  If you're considering an impulse purchase today, one of those wouldn't be a bad way to go.

3.  Pets aren't happy about the power outage, either.  At least Stella wasn't.  The last apartment we rented before buying our condo had one of those climate control systems where heat and AC couldn't coexist and they had to switch back and forth with the seasons.  Of course, with weather patterns becoming less predictable, this invariably led to lengthy spells of discomfort while the management tried to decide if the hot/cold spell was some sort of anomaly or a true change in seasons.  Stella used to get pretty grumpy during the hot spells when we didn't have AC, so it's not surprising that she was unhappy last night when we had no AC to alleviate three days of temperatures over 90 degrees.  She spent much of the night meowing loudly, possibly thinking that Scott and I were just being dense and if she could only be loud enough we might turn on the AC so we could all be comfortable.

4.  Sitting in the dark makes you tired.  I was struck at how early I became drowsy, sitting in the dark, even with a couple of light-emitting devices.  Of course, falling asleep in bed was another story, due to it being hot and stuffy and certain cats complaining bitterly!

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Caring For A Sick Cat, Part 2

 I first wrote about caring for a sick cat when our old cat, Laila, was approaching the end of her life.  At that point, we were pretty sure she was nearing the end, and it was a matter of exactly when it would happen and trying to maximize her quality of life.

Stella's situation is different, in that we don't think she's approaching the end of her life, but we're trying to prevent her early demise.

Stella has always been a loud and vocal kitty, but she had gotten louder and more persistent, especially at night.  There were times when her meows ventured into scream territory.  The first time this happened, I bolted out of bed, fearing that she had hurt herself.  She seemed fine.  Internet searches suggested this was a behavioral issue and that we try to give her a lot of attention during the day and then ignore her at night, so as not to reinforce the behavior.

I had wondered if there was something else wrong, but I wasn't getting any clue as to what.  Taking Stella to the vet is always very traumatic for her; plus, we had a bad experience with the vet we took her to after moving to our current home and we needed to find a new one.  We ended up pushing this until it was time for her annual physical, and we made an appointment at a veterinary clinic that is just for cats.

Stella was not shy about airing her grievances at that appointment, so the vet had an idea of how loud she could be.  She said that sometimes loud meowing/screaming is due to high blood pressure--they think cats get headaches from that.  She checked, and sure enough, Stella's blood pressure was dangerously high.  She gave Stella a first dose of blood pressure medicine right then and there.

Blood pressure checks are often not a part of routine veterinary examinations (at least of cats), so I intend this to be partly a public service announcement for other cat owners.  But it's also a chance to write about caring for an animal with a chronic health problem.  The good news for all of us is that Stella does seem calmer and happier since starting on her blood pressure medicine.  The bad news is that this cat who loathes being loaded into the cat carrier and riding in the car has earned more frequent trips to the vet to monitor her.  Also, we get the pleasure of administering her medication.

We started out with pills, which were relatively cheap.  The vet recommended that I crush them into her food.  I did as she recommended.  The problem is that since Stella rarely eats all the food in her bowl, it was impossible to tell how much--if any--of her dose she was getting.  I told the vet what was happening, and we decided to try the medicine compounded into treats.

The blood pressure treats were significantly more expensive than the pills, but I thought they were at least worth a try.  However, by the time they arrived, Stella was due for a blood pressure check at the vet.  Her blood pressure was borderline low at that appointment, so they suggested we try a lower dose.  The expensive treats had to be put aside, at least temporarily.  Fortunately, they had some samples of transdermal blood pressure medicine at the lower dose that they gave us for free to try.  The way this works on cats is that you rub this on the inside of their ear (one of the few parts of cats that aren't covered in fur) and have to periodically clean their ears so that the residue doesn't prevent the medicine from being absorbed.

On the whole, I think transdermal medicine is way easier to administer than pills.  I have to wear a finger cot or disposable glove while administering it, so as not to absorb any medicine through my own skin (I'm usually successful at avoiding contact with it; if my blood pressure takes a sudden drop, we'll know why!).  Stella doesn't like having her ears handled, but if I can get her when she's drowsy and lying down, she's usually pretty cooperative.

Well, we had another vet visit the other day to check Stella's blood pressure.  Her blood pressure is now borderline high.  Apparently, there is no in-between dose of this medicine, so we have to alternate giving her the higher dose one day and the lower dose the next.  This has a real potential to be confusing.  I've ordered the transdermal version of both doses (which, like the treats, are significantly more expensive than the pills) and think I'll need to get a calendar and some way of marking the syringes to keep track.  In the meantime, I decided to try her on one of those expensive blood pressure treats.  I cut it up into pieces and put it in her breakfast yesterday.  She must have been able to smell a difference in her food, and spent the morning avoiding it and complaining bitterly about the ever-fragrant cat food being contaminated with potentially lifesaving medicine.  But after I left for work, she did eat most of her food, according to Scott, who got home before I did and fed her dinner.

Caring for an animal with a chronic health problem, as opposed to an acute and possible end-of-life health problem, is a new experience for me.  It will be a logistical issue we'll have to think about for as long as Stella is alive.  But I myself have a chronic health condition (Hashimoto's disease), so I've experienced firsthand how proper treatment is a complete game changer for quality of life.  It's been rewarding to see Stella appear calmer and more content, and I hope this medicine will bring her more and happier years.

Thursday, March 10, 2022

The Hard Truth About Changing Careers

 tl;dr:  There is no guarantee of success in changing careers (or anything else, really) even when you are trying to make well reasoned, responsible choices.  Your miserable experience going back to school will not necessarily be inversely proportional to the job you eventually get.

I started seriously thinking about changing careers when we were working in Kazakhstan.  I knew pretty quickly that our employment situation over there was not going to be satisfactory for the long haul and started applying to jobs in the US pretty early on.  I applied to dozens of jobs, but got very little response from employers, which made me think that I might need to change directions.  A few months ago, I came across a Google Doc I made at the time, which laid out information I found about various career paths that interested me.  I decided that if I were to make a change, I would explore speech-language pathology.  Everything I read suggested significant job growth in the field and decent salaries.  I also thought it dovetailed nicely with my language background.

I eventually did get one of the jobs I applied to while I was still in Kazakhstan, so temporarily shelved plans to try to change careers.  However, my new job offered tuition remission, so I thought maybe it would be a good idea to take some prerequisites to a speech-language pathology graduate program.  My idea was that if I ever needed to change careers, any course I completed for free would be to my advantage.  The university made it very easy for me; they had just started an evening program geared toward non-traditional students who wanted to take those courses.

I liked my job and viewed these courses as a back-up option.  Then, in the summer of 2017, I was laid off.  I was rehired about three months later, but during the time I was laid off, I was able to get only a part-time job.  All of a sudden, my back-up option became the main option.  It was a hard decision to leave my job and go back to school, but my workplace continued to be unstable.  Had I stayed, I would have been laid off again a couple months later anyway.

Since I already had one masters degree, I thought I understood what grad school would be like a second time.  Wrong.  A graduate program with a clinical component turned out to be much more time-consuming and stressful than my previous program.  I won't get into this in detail here, but there were also aspects of my specific graduate program that were quite unpleasant.  Especially in the first year, I was stressed, had almost no time to myself, and found my health suffering.  I wanted so badly to drop out, but stayed, both out of fear that I wouldn't find another good job with my existing skill set and out of optimism that a degree in speech-language pathology would open doors to stable, well-paying work.

I graduated in May of 2020, right into the throes of the pandemic.  Since that time, I have had three jobs as a speech-language pathologist, along with some "breaks" in employment.  I completed my clinical fellowship year with a combination of starting at a small private practice and then becoming a contractor with a local school district.  After completing my clinical fellowship year and being awarded my certificate of clinical competence (CCC), I worked for a stint at a skilled nursing facility.  To be perfectly honest, none of these jobs have been the stable, well-paying, "good" jobs I was hoping to get.

There are almost too many problems to mention with the small private practice I started with.  The job as a contractor with the school district was arguably the best job out of the three, both in terms of pay and predictability.  But, there are downsides to being a contractor.  The school district was not able to guarantee my employment from year to year (I didn't get a firm offer of a second year until July).  Also, this two-tiered system of employing speech-language pathologists never sat well with me.  If I had the same responsibilities, stresses, and aggravations of a county employee, why wasn't I eligible for the same benefits?  The problems of being on the lower tier of a two-tiered system became very apparent when I had to make a big fuss to get my Covid vaccine along with the county employees.

When I took the job at the skilled nursing facility, I knew from reviews I read about the company that it wasn't going to be a dream job.  But I was interested in working with adults, and hoped that getting experience working with them in a not-so-great job might set me up to eventually get a better job.  For a while, it seemed okay.  Then I started hearing about how I wasn't meeting productivity standards.  I made changes to what I was doing, and while on my best days when everything worked out perfectly I got close, I never actually met the productivity standards my employer wanted.  Then, admissions plummeted and my hours plummeted.  It was not a salaried position, though the expectation was that I would work 30-40 hours per week.  I was getting so few hours that I left at the end of January, thinking that (a) I wasn't losing out on that much money by leaving, and (b) that it would be difficult to both work (even at a reduced number of hours) and conduct an intensive job search.  (I was right about that--I've had quite a few interviews since then, and interviewers almost invariably want to do them in the middle of the day.  Last week alone, I had three in-person interviews all at 11:00.  It's not exactly easy to fit work in around those midday obligations.)

Having lots of interviews should in theory be an encouraging sign, but being interviewed is not synonymous with getting a job, let alone a good job.  I'd say that in probably half the interviews I have, the employer never officially rejects me, even when they say they'll get back to me within a certain timeframe.  Also, a lot of these jobs just aren't that great and seem to be geared toward people who don't actually need money.  I went to a virtual hiring event for a local hospital system and was told that the only current speech-language pathologist opening they had was a PRN position (someone who works as needed, not on a regular basis).  This position would be mostly weekends.  Then, the interviewer told me they were looking for someone who was independent with swallow studies because they didn't want to have to do a lot of training for a PRN employee.  I get where they're coming from, but who are all these people who get a graduate degree in speech-language pathology, develop advanced competencies in swallowing, and then decide that instead of having a salary and benefits, they would like to work occasional weekends and get whatever money they can get?  I had a similar experience with a private practice recently.  This employer actually was courteous enough to send me an email rejection, but in this rejection sited that (a) she couldn't offer me consistent hours, and (b) she was looking for someone with significant experience in literacy testing.  Again, who becomes specialized in anything only to decide to work for scraps?

At this point, I feel like I didn't read the fine print when I decided to become a speech-language pathologist.  Only the problem is, I never knew there was fine print, and I still haven't seen what it says.  I can only infer from my experience that it exists somewhere.  Maybe the fine print says that speech-language pathology would have been a viable career path for me, except during a pandemic.  Maybe it says that I can have a well-paying job as a speech-language pathologist, but that I have to uproot myself and live in a different part of the country.  Or that I can work as a speech-language pathologist in the DC area, but will only ever get paid scraps.  Or, maybe in the worst case scenario, the fine print says there is something specific about me (my age, unusual educational path, personality...) that is preventing me from getting a good job as a speech-language pathologist.  I have very few useful lessons to share from this experience so far, only a cautionary tale about how the best laid plans don't always work out.